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    A Tenuous Tradition: Fear and Faith in Jewish-Christian Dialogue

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 23 January 2018.

    Christianity and Judaism are outcomes of the Hebrew Bible but they each interpret the Bible differently. Not only does their exegesis differ, but even their emphases and ethics.

    Despite the popular belief, the so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition” is not a shared philosophy and probably doesn’t really exist. But the phrase does have its usefulness in implying that there is a shared moral answerability to God, whichever the way in which God and answerability are defined.

    The differences do not mean that the adherents of the two faiths are justified in fearing or fighting one another. The commonalities, on the other hand, do not justify pretending that the differences do not exist.

    For many centuries Jews and Christians were mutually hostile, and Christians in particular were physically aggressive towards Jews. Now, thank God, the climate has changed, and denigration and destruction have given way to dialogue.

    Nonetheless some Christians reject the principle of dialogue with Jews because they feel all Jews should become Christians. They probably don’t realise that God made all of us and whatever our individual faith commitment we should have space and respect for everyone and their conscience.

    Some Jews also reject dialogue with Christians, not because they expect the Christians to convert to Judaism but for a range of other reasons. They say that Jews:
    • have suffered so much from Christians that all they want is to be left alone;
    • harbour the fear that Christian friendship has a price tag and that Christians still want to convert them;
    • suspect that Christianity has no real respect for Judaism;
    • worry that Christians do not realise that Jesus was a Jew who probably had no intention of forming another religion;
    • see faith as an intensely personal spiritual journey that can’t be imposed on others;
    • have a unique culture and history which outsiders don’t share;
    • are a people, not just one of many denominations;
    • respect the conscience of all faiths and see no need for anyone to apologise for being themselves;
    • are more concerned to strengthen Judaism than to investigate other religions; and
    • prefer shared practical work for ethical and social causes to theological and philosophical ruminating.

    Valid points, but from a Jewish point of view they all mean that we more or less have to isolate ourselves from others.

    But there is a dilemma. In a multichrome, multicultural world, none of us can really lock ourselves away. There are many religions, many cultures, many ways of thinking with which we have to share the planet. Without necessarily agreeing with them, we need to learn to be on speaking terms with all types of philosophies, including those that are non-theistic. We must engage with all who stand for spiritual and ethical principles, starting with Christians, many of whom deserve credit for genuinely trying to overcome the heritage of historic hostility.

    Yet there is an important limitation in the words of Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik:

    We are opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyse or rationalise our faith in dialogues centered about these ‘private’ topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel … Jews and Christians employ different categories and move with incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.

    The reference to public events warns us that formal Councils of Christians and Jews can be over-genteel and be tempted into simplistic, superficial displays of equivalence. Many years of involvement in such programs on three continents have made me feel immensely dissatisfied. Sharing tea and sandwiches is very friendly and pleasant, but when a Jewish speaker lists his tenets and a Christian lists theirs and each seems to be inviting an audience vote, it is all highly entertaining but unbelievably superficial.

    There is no necessary equivalence in why a Jew follows Judaism and why a Christian follows Christianity. It is not just a question of why either is used to and feels comfortable with a particular faith discipline and tradition. There are sometimes personal psychological problems that issue in private faith states that have little or nothing to do with a theological tradition or structure.

    Faith states can be separated from theological traditions but this probably happens rarely. So there an additional question of whether theological mindsets can be separated from social and ethical co-operation, since the latter implies and imports theoretical principles and historical experience. It must be said, too, that whatever the level of engagement, there is a personal dimension which is immensely positive: we get to know each other and even become adopted members of one another’s families. We see how our backgrounds and customs mould our thinking and way of life, though we will probably never be able to get inside each other’s head

    A new element is the rather robust encounter with resurgent Islam, which is still a puzzle to both the other monotheistic religions. Though Christianity and Judaism have entered and come to grips with modernity, we suspect that this is yet to happen with Islam. Christianity and Judaism have painfully reached the awareness that all genuinely held belief systems are legitimate and worthy of respect. Which raises the question of whether and how far faiths can change course in their policies and practices, leave each other alone, and be guided by human compassion and not religious sloganism.

    The number of adherents that any one faith group has is not the point, despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) that thinks that the more numerous faith communities are in some sense more authentic while the smaller ones are given short shrift. When planning the five-yearly censuses the ABS has a habit of tucking Judaism away in a corner because its numbers are far lower than those of the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and other Christians, nor does the ABS recognise that the quality of – say- a Buddhist’s commitment is quite different from that of a perfunctory Anglican. I tried to argue this out with the ABS for many years, but they found it difficult to see my point.

    If we ask what the dialogue (whatever its nature) has achieved in its short life can we really say, “How far we have got!”? Must we sadly admit, “How little we have progressed!”?

    The Midrash, the collection of Jewish exegetical narratives and tales, tells about a man who reaches a crossroad to find his way blocked by a huge rock. He tries to push it out of the way but lacks the strength. He could of course sit down and weep, but what use is that? What does he do? He begins chipping away at the edges, and little by little the rock gets smaller.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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